Dispatches From Iraq

Received via Mike Sloniker 5 May 2003

I love this stuff.
You can't make this up...
Mike (Sloniker)

Interesting account from a Bell Helicopter representative (John) on his experiences to date, as related to another contractor (also John) in Kuwait, who sent it to a former boss of mine.

I thought I would share it with you-all in hopes it might give you a flavor of combat on the road to Baghdad--remember this is from a civilian's eye-view, not a soldier's, so take any critique he makes in that light.


Hi; I got called back from the front (I have the dubious distinction of being the first American Civilian to cross the Euphrates River) Monday. Tuesday I went to Dubai as the Kuwaiti visa I am on requires. Once every thirty days I have to leave and then come back in. I flew back from just north of the river in a Blackhawk of the 603rd AVN BDE. They were stuck with me after the Brigade Combat team commander discovered me in the convoy the day before. He apparently did not intend for me to be in the middle of what I was, but I was. This is what happens (even to aviation soldiers) who work for tankers. What follows is a sanitized for public consumption version of the eleven days events as I traveled with D, E & F troops 3/7 Cav.: I left my rental vehicle at Camp Udari and joined the F Troop 3/7 Cav. for the jump over the border. The unit moved across the border under cover of artillery fire on 18 March at 2345. I rode with the troop first sergeant as a convoy spotter, using one radio to relay status as he used another to talk to higher headquarters. We progressed the 83-vehicle convoy west-northwest for some 24 hours to a Euphrates river crossing at the town of As Samawa. The Kiowa's of 3/7 Cav. provided cover and route security/reconnaissance. The Iraqi's had been dug in at As Samawa for some time and were employing local farmers as forced conscripts. We encountered sniper and heavy machine gun fire immediately after crossing the ridge above the river valley. The Kiowa's were kept busy eliminating the shooters and heavier armor threats further into the valley. After the threats on the south side of the river were reduced to an acceptable level (to the tankers anyhow), the Kiowa's began patrols of the bridge over the river and the city lying just beyond the river. They encountered their first organized resistance, in the form of anti aircraft systems set up under the very bridge we were to cross. Echo Troop was given the task of eliminating the threat at the bridge and did so with many reloads of 2.75 HE rockets and at least a dozen Hellfire missiles. Even a ZSU-57-2 track mounted 57MM anti-aircraft gun positioned directly under the first span of the bridge was defeated using a Hellfire in LOBL direct - remote designated mode. The missile struck the vehicle at a low angle between the weapons gun barrels. The bridge was not damaged. This shot was complicated by the presence of some 150 Iraqi human shields all waving white flags and protecting the Iraqi gun positions. The crowd was effectively dispersed at the sight of a Hellfire passing just over their heads. In the process of this fighting, two Kiowa's were struck by small arms fire. Both returned to base without further incident, see aircraft information for further details. The fight for the town continued steadily for two days, with the 3rd ID Commander deciding that soft skinned vehicles would not be safe traversing the town. I could not have agreed more. The aviation assets were set up some 20 KM south of the town, on the downhill slopes of the ridges descending into the Euphrates river valley. We could look down into the city and see the impact of fire from artillery, our aircraft and bombers, which continued night and day. I was amazed by the lack of light security we had at this assembly area. Personnel would stand around smoking cigarettes exposed to sight from the town below. It was therefore no big surprise that every few hours a 122MM rocket or large caliber artillery piece would land a round in our immediate area, indicating to me that we were just too darn close. But we are led by tankers and will behave like tankers, which would lead us into a very bad situation later. The decision was finally made to bypass the town of As Samawa. We are to travel WNW along the river for some 100 KM to the town of As Nasiriyah. The convoy was as before, supported by air cover from the Kiowa's and on the ground by the armor contingent of the Squadron. The armor would go ahead of the convoy, scouting and assuring the integrity of the route. This worked fine until the Iraqi's got smart enough not to shoot at the tanks. They waited till we came down the road, presenting a much less menacing target. I was in the lead vehicle of F Troop with the only element ahead of us being headquarters troop. They had four 5000-gallon tankers, cargo vehicles, a fueler HEMMT and a few HUMMWV's ahead of us. Yes, I know what you are thinking, 22500 gallons of jet fuel at the front of the convoy? Yep, that is just exactly the way it was and probably what the bad guys were thinking too. We are trying to maintain convoy separation and interval only to discover we have lost sight of the lead elements. Not wanting to enter a town alone, the F Troop commander has the remainder of the convoy turn around. This produces a major traffic jam, with large tractor-trailer rigs, stuck across the road, unable to complete the turnaround. We then finally make radio contact with the lead elements of the convoy only to find we must turn around again to join up with them. In the town, the lead elements come under machine gun and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) fire from both sides of the road. As soon as the shooting starts, the convoy gets strung out with the slower vehicles holding up smaller vehicles. The fire is not well aimed, yet an RPG hits a medical Hummer, four vehicles ahead of us. The passengers are dazed but unhurt. In the ensuing melee, the HEMMT fueler drives into a ditch and flips over. The 1st Sergeant leads the rescue effort for the crew, with a Bradley fighting vehicle pulling up to provide cover fire while the driver, passenger and gunner are rescued. The driver was pinned by the steering wheel and was freed by chaining the wheel to the rear of the Bradley and pulling it out of the vehicle. The driver was uninjured, but the passenger suffered two broken ribs and was none too happy about our abrupt extraction of him from the vehicle. These vehicles were abandoned and their locations marked to be recovered later. We, for some reason beyond logic, moved right into the center of town and stopped. By now we are more than 100 vehicles, with other units attaching themselves for the herd mentality provision of protection in numbers. It is now daylight and we are sitting looking at the residents of this town filling the streets. I note that there are no men of fighting age, only women, children and old men. This logic is not lost on the 1st Sergeant who makes sure that higher command levels understand this observation. The higher levels of command may have understood but we are made to sit in this town for fourteen hours, with locals driving back and forth through and around the convoy in cars, truck and busses, hauling bodies, wounded and persons fleeing the fighting east and west. I wonder just why are we allowing these folks free passage through out position. The error of this policy is to become evident, when 60mm mortars begin to fall around us. We move 1KM up the road to remove ourselves from the impact area. Again we stop and just watch as locals drive through our convoy and off into Indian country. Again the mortars fall and again we move another KM west. We are only several KM from the bridge we wish to use to cross the river, and now we have given the bad guys 14 hours notice of our intentions. At dark, we move just out of the town, into the edges of the next town, inside which is the bridge. Again we get mortared and have running gunfight with dismounted infantry who use occupied houses for cover. At 0300 the following morning, we make it to the bridge, only to find it is the wrong bridge. This one is not certified to hold the weight of a tank. We hear crashing and banging in front of us, which turns out to be the lead tank falling through the bridge. The crew is rescued as the river is only four or so feet deep and the tank landed upright. One soldier has a cut forehead and all are very lucky the tank landed right side up. Our convoy must now turn some thirty vehicles around on a two-lane road one more time. We find that the resistance is tougher the closer we get to the bridge. This is because the resistance in town is from involuntary soldiers, with the bridge defended by Iraqi Army Republican Guards Special Forces. By this time the sand storm, promised by the weather folks by 1600 the previous day finally arrives in force. It may have been a blessing as both sides had night vision goggles (NVG's), but ours had better vision in the dust and sand. We also had the advantage of thermal vision on the Bradley and Abrams tanks. As we round a corner I see one of the vehicles that had been driving through our convoy the previous day. It contained five men who had driven through our parked convoy several times the day before. They were seen running from the trees to the vehicle in an attempt to escape ahead of our forces. A Bradley crew, who noted the mortar tube they were carrying to the car, saw them. They were in and around the car in various states of dead. By this time I really want to have armor around, all the time. We make our way across the bridge and stop some three KM north of the bridge when two tankers; six vehicles in front of us, are hit by artillery fire as they cross an intersection. The drivers are injured, but not seriously. The vehicles are wrecked and blocking the road, burning up their cargo. As is typical, the bad guys plotted an intersection for artillery and shoot only when someone enters the impact area. By now the sand storm is so bad we can only see 150 feet with the NVGs and the Bradleys can only see three times that far on thermal. We are now stuck on an elevated road above open fields with wheat growing three feet high. Not a tactically sound location. We take up positions in the ditch on either side of the road, facing out into the field, with the armor in front of us, engines off, listening and watching. We were probed by dismounted troops in groups of ten to twenty all night, although none get within the perimeter. Several times mortars land well outside of our location and artillery lands one or two fields away. Just because it is 500 yards away does not make the fire any less menacing. By sunrise the tankers have burnt out and are pushed off the road. The convoy spends several hours refueling and rearming from the remaining tankers and ammo haulers. We then travel north some 3 KM to the outskirts of a town that has a large military compound and a large pro-Saddam population. There, the now thoroughly worn-out armor troops come under heavy fire from artillery and truck mounted anti-aircraft guns. One tank is struck in the aft turret by a 57MM gun, which causes the ammo in the tank to cook off. The tank vents the detonation overboard, but one crewmember suffers from smoke inhalation. Another tank moves up to cover their recovery and is shot in the engine by the same gun, disabling the motion of the tank, but the crew traverses the gun and shoots the bad guys. A 120MM HE round at 100 feet does not leave much evidence of the opposition. I had to have one of the tankers tell me what I was looking at to even identify the hulk of the truck. We are again on an elevated road, running through farms fields and it is getting dark. We have heard more fighting behind us, with Crazy Horse troop covering our rear as we attempt to go north. They are pulling in close to us when we get reports from north of us a column of 110-120 Iraqi vehicles is approaching. Again we assume fighting positions and sit, quietly in most cases, trying to see where the bad guys are coming from. The dismounts are seen first, trying to get us to fire and expose our positions. We wait and ID them for the armor giuys who deal with them in two's and three's with their machine guns. Better to have the armor guys located than us with no armor. The armor guys are watching for bad guy armor and don't have to wait long. A column of 12 tanks is approaching on a parallel dirt road, 350 yards to our east. When the armor guys have a positive ID on the bad guys a call is made for Air Force close air support. I do mean close. The first munitions dropped by the F-16 is a 2000 lb. JDAM, GPS guided bomb. This bomb was close enough that dirt and rocks up to the size of baseballs fell on us. A later look at the map indicated we were 1100 yards from the impact point. I was one scared Bell Guy. Another JDAM was dropped on the trail vehicle of the Iraqi convoy, making a hole too big for the convoy to retreat. A-10 aircraft then came in and worked over the remainder of the convoy, with two tanks escaping the bombing only to be killed by elements of Crazy Horse Troop, 3/7 Cav (my personal heroes). The Squadron Commander rolled by just before daylight in his command Bradley and noted with some amazement my presence manning a M2 .50 Cal machine gun mount on a truck. I had with much concern the night before, watched the soldier manning this weapon fall asleep several times. I replaced her and let her get some rest she apparently needed more than I. Again I must state I was one scared Bell Guy. The Squadron Commander dismounted and talked with the F troop Commander for a minute, at which point the soldier was vigorously awakened to replace me. The Captain, Colonel and I discussed just which part of Bell's contract called for the Bell Guy to man a machine gun. I explained to the Commander that I was just helping out where I was needed and that despite me being an overweight 45 year old, I could help out. Then without provocation, the 1st Sergeant explained my contributions to date on this little ride through the Iraqi countryside. The color drained from the Colonel's face. I was informed I would be sent to Kuwait as soon as practical. But he didn't tell me not to stand guard duty! By daylight the sand storm had ended and we were just waiting for the dust to settle to the ground. The aircraft had finally moved to a more forward location, leaving the hard landing aircraft and a recovery crew behind. We finally hear that another Brigade of 3rd ID is relieving us and another day later, we will go south back across the river to rest and rearm. In the morning we traversed the town that is still being fought for, taking moderate small arms fire, but no casualties. We are given two days to rest up, although the Squadron commander wanted the aircraft to begin flying missions immediately. He really could not fathom why no maintenance was performed on the aircraft while we were stuck north of the river. When he heard that the pilots didn't do any maintenance while we were gone, he displayed some very un-Colonel like behavior, throwing things and generally scattering lieutenants. What do you mean pilots don't do maintenance? In defense of the pilots we informed the Commander that they had no tools, no maintenance talent and no parts! With this he cooled some and asked how long before we could begin flying missions. This meant that I would not get any sleep for another twenty-four hours! We had miscellaneous communications problems (dirt), blades that needed attention (filler) and one aircraft that had a newly installed engine that compressor stalled on landing from its first mission. Also we had to clean every filter we have, as the availability of water was iffy at best. After the divine intervention that kept all the troopers and myself safe, I had to tempt fate by joining the Troop commander and 1st Sergeant for a half-mile walk to dinner. You cannot use a flashlight at this site for fear of attracting sniper fire. So under a moonless pitch-black sky we set out. About halfway there, I found a freshly dug, unmarked ten-foot deep trash pit. In the dark, landing face first in 4+ feet of water, while wearing an extra 25 lbs. of gear, I really thought I had been blown up. I just knew I had! It took the Captain and 1st Sergeant to pull me out of the hole. My left knee now has a mind of it's own and is a constant reminder of my nocturnal gymnastics. Aside from damaging both my knee and causing me the prodigious loss of cool points, my new digital camera with some 300 combat and various troop pictures was soaked and destroyed. Now I am mad and someone, meaning you the American Taxpayer, is going to pay! I love you all and pray for the Kids, now sitting at what used to be Saddam International Airport